Bill and Rita Stenner knew I loved small boat sailing. I learned to sail small cat boats as a Boy Scout at Camp Liahona on Lake Seneca in up-state New York. Of all my 35 Boy Scout merit badges, small boat sailing was my favorite. Bill invited me to sail with him and Rita in his 19-foot sloop several times over several summers. We put in at Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, and tacked toward the Hudson Bay, with the Twin Towers shooting above the barely-visible land of Manhattan Island. Rita suffered from crippling rheumatoid arthritis, and sat crumpled and twisted in a wheelchair. But floating in the water behind the cruising sloop freed her from her confinement. She never complained in the chair, but she exulted from within the cool salt water as I steered and called “coming about!” This poem, “Rita,” I wrote some 30 years later in reverent memory of these good, kind, quiet people. Thanks Rita and Bill. (See the Rabbit Lane: Memoir page of this blog, Chapter 4: Desert Lighthouse post, for reference to sailing with Bill and Rita.)
The old man was kind to me,
though I offered nothing but my youthful company,
which I made pleasant, for my gratitude,
on those summer days.
How we sailed!
From Sandy Hook toward Hudson’s kills,
Twin Towers rising like brother beacons
beckoning us to tack their way,
I on the rudder,
Bill on the main sheet and jib.
Oh—how we sailed!
He tethered his wife,
a cheerful lump of rheumatoid flesh,
and tossed her offhandedly overboard,
whence she giggled and squealed
for the cool and the salt, the jostling wake,
for her release from the chair.
Sailing in the salt breeze!
Ponderous thunderheads darkened abruptly,
and we hauled her in
like a troll-caught crab
and fled the flashes, knowing
how tall and conductive was the metal mast
and how helpless we would be
on the water.